John the Baptist was the son of Zechariah, a priest of the Temple in Jerusalem, and Elizabeth, a kinswoman of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah and foretold the birth of John, even though Zechariah and Elizabeth were advanced in age, and Elizabeth was thought to be barren.
Our first image of John is that of a baby in the womb of his mother, who recognized the presence of the unborn Christ. When Mary, pregnant with Jesus, went to visit Elizabeth, pregnant with John, Luke’s gospel tells us “when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leapt for joy”, and Elizabeth exclaimed, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”
As a man, John lived as a hermit in the desert of Judea until about A.D. 27. When he was 30, he began to preach on the banks of the Jordan River, and called men to penance and baptism. He attracted large crowds, and when Jesus, although sinless, came to him for baptism, John recognized Him as the Messiah, and baptized Him saying, “It is I who need baptism from you”. This marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
John inspired many of his own followers to follow Christ when he designated Him “the Lamb of God”. It is believed that John had a specific role ordained by God as the precursor of Jesus. In Luke 1:17, the role of John is referred to as “…to make ready a people prepared for the Lord”.
In the Gospel accounts of John’s death, Herod has John imprisoned for denouncing his incestuous marriage, and later executes John by having him beheaded. The first century historian Josephus writes that Herod may have had John arrested because John had so many followers that Herod regarded him as a threat and wanted to get rid of him. Either way, we see that John paid the ultimate price for doing God’s will and proclaiming God’s word.